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Its second-consecutive appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a year-long national ranking and a head coach on the cusp of her historic 700th-career win highlighted the 2008-09 Virginia women’s basketball season.

This year, the program looks to do all that and more, as senior guard and All-American Monica Wright returns for her final season, Hall of Fame head coach Debbie Ryan begins her 33rd year at the helm with 699 career wins and the Cavaliers welcome the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class to Grounds.

Wright, a preseason first team All-American selection by The Associated Press and Lindy’s, led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring last season (20.5 points per game) and is the only returning first team All-ACC honoree. She has played in the NCAA Tournament two out of her three seasons as a Cavalier, but acknowledges that the program is ready for a deeper run in the tournament.

“As far as my senior year goes, I do feel like I have some unfinished business,” Wright says. “Since I’ve been here, Virginia has not beaten some of the teams I’ve wanted to beat in the ACC or won the ACC Championship. Winning an NCAA Championship is obviously something on my list that I haven’t been able to check off yet, either.”

After an injury sidelined classmate Paulisha Kellum last season, Wright saw some time at point guard in 2008-09. With a healthy Kellum, returner Ariana Moorer and newcomer China Crosby, Wright should be freed up to play her natural position of shooting guard.

Moorer averaged 7.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in 16 starts last season, and was named ACC Rookie of the Week during her first season.

“Ariana Moorer is in great shape,” Ryan says. “She’s fit and she’s worked on her game all summer. She is poised and ready to go.”

Also returning in the backcourt is junior Jayna Hartig and sophomore Whitny Edwards. Edwards appeared in 30 games and started two while averaging 4.6 points per game, and Hartig appeared in 23 games while averaging 1.3 points per game.

“Jayna Hartig looks really good,” Ryan says. “She is in much better shape this year than she was last year at this point in time. She’s stronger and a little bigger. She’s shooting the ball well and she’s ready to make more of an impact on our team.

“Whitny is another one that looks a lot stronger this year,” Ryan says. “She is shooting the ball well and we want her to make a bigger contribution this year, especially on the defensive end.”

Crosby comes to UVa out of New York City, as a high school McDonald’s All-American. She played at Manhattan Center was one of the highest rated point guards in the nation coming out of high school.

Also providing depth at the guard position is freshman Lexie Gerson (Fort Washington, Pa.), who played prep basketball at The Peddie School, a program that won four-straight state championships.

“I think they are probably a little better than advertised,” Ryan says. “I’ve been really impressed with China Crosby and Lexie Gerson in the guard position because both of them seem to be able to pick things up quickly and you only have to tell them once. They work extremely hard, which is probably the hardest thing as kids make the transition to college.”

In the frontcourt, Virginia will look to fill the void left by the graduation of two-year starting center Aisha Mohammed, now playing professionally overseas. Mohammed was the only player in the ACC to average a double-double last season (12.1 points, 10.1 rebounds per game).

Sophomore Chelsea Shine, who started five games and appeared in all 34 last year, averaged 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in 2008-09. She will be joined in the post by fellow sophomore Britny Edwards, who saw action in 20 games last season.

“Chelsea Shine has had a fabulous summer,” Ryan says. “She’s strong and she beats everybody up and down the court. She’s a leader and has stepped up in so many different ways. It’s been a real help to Monica in the leadership area. She is poised for an absolute great year. Britny Edwards has made some great strides on her footwork and she’s really doing well in preseason workouts so I’m looking for her to have a bigger role this year as well.”

Newcomers Simone Egwu, Telia McCall and Erinn Thompson will also compete for time in the post position. Egwu was a standout for Arundel High School in Odenton, Md., and for Boo Williams on the AAU level, while McCall hails from Marietta, Ga., and had an outstanding prep career there. Thompson played for Bishop McGuinness near her hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., and was twice named the North Carolina player of the year.

“In the forward position where we have Telia, she is a player that has been hungry for what we are about to undertake,” Ryan says. “She’s strong and she has the ability to shoot the 3-pointer. She’s a player that is sort of like an open book and I’d really like to see her spread her wings a little bit. She’s a player that we will start in the post but probably move to the wing. The two post players, Simone Egwu is a player that can run the floor well. She’s going to be a great rebounder for us and is hungry to make an impact. Erinn Thompson has really refined moves around the basket and she is another one that works extremely hard and wants to be very good.”

Two other new faces will be on the bench this season in associate head coach Tim Taylor and assistant coach Wendy Palmer, who round out Ryan’s coaching staff along with assistant coach Angel Elderkin. Taylor was an assistant for UVa from 2000-05 and most recently the head boys basketball coach at Madison County High School, while Palmer played for Ryan from 1992-96, is an 11-year WNBA veteran and spent the last two years as an assistant coach at Kentucky.

“That has been a really good thing for me,” Ryan says. “I’ve enjoyed thoroughly having both of them join this staff. They completely understand Virginia and where we are going. They’ve already made their own marks and are recruiting very well. The players really like them. Tim brings another head coach to the program which is great. He and assistant coach Angel Elderkin are both very strong and able to run the program. And then with Wendy back, it gives us an immediate role model. I love Wendy’s discipline on the court. It helps our players understand the level that they need to be on. She has them reaching higher than what they think they can do.”

As for Ryan, a long list of accomplishments is about to grow bigger as she opens the season on Nov. 13 at UMBC in search of career win No. 700. The elite group of active coaches who have reached the milestone are Pat Summitt (Tennessee), C. Vivian Stringer (Rutgers), Sylvia Hatchell (North Carolina), Tara VanDerveer (Stanford), Robin Selvig (Montana) and Andy Landers (Georgia). Only nine coaches have ever reached the No. 700 milestone.

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